The cities where we live – their streets, buildings and services – have a lot to do with our health and wellbeing. Pollution in the air that we breathe, excessive environmental noise, light pollution and the lack of green areas near our homes have an impact on us, both physically and psychologically. Surely, developers must be leading the charge towards a better future? Well, I have good news for you. Let me introduce you to the concept of Conscious Cities.

Over the last few months, the patterns and rhythms of cities around the world have been deep and abruptly affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Fear of crowds, social distancing, remote working, travel restrictions and confinement have changed the way communities interact as well as how we perceive our surroundings. As a result, for the first time in human history, we are spending most of our lives indoors.

Living an indoor life is a concern for many reasons, not just because people are missing out on fresh air and natural daylight, but it can also affect our vitamin levels, circadian rhythms, stress levels and the amount of meaningful interaction we have with others. So, in much the same way the buildings we live in can boost our health and well-being, they can also make us sick. Now more than ever it has become apparent that psychologically, not just biologically, we need healthy buildings.

Traditional urban planning and architecture have mainly focused on maximising efficiency and reducing costs. As a result, what we have nowadays is a shared urban environment that is oblivious to people’s needs other than their movement (which is, of course, of very little help when we see our movements being restricted).

Tunnel future architect lights blue purple people walking

Conscious Cities

The concept of “Smart Cities” aims to use the Internet of Things (IoT) to collect data and then use it to manage assets, resources and services sustainably. However, the emerging movement of “Conscious Cities” goes a step further building a bridge between architecture, technology and neuroscience in order to create healthier, more inclusive and more democratic built environments.

According to the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, “The physical and social environments of urban life can contribute both positively and negatively to mental health and wellbeing. According to research, cities are associated with higher rates of mental health problems compared to rural areas: an almost 40% higher risk of depression, over 20% more anxiety, and double the risk of schizophrenia, in addition to more loneliness, isolation and stress.”

Have you ever considered whether your home could help you to concentrate better? Or if the neighbourhood you live in could reduce your stress levels after a challenging week? We tend to move from one space to another on automatic mode, without really properly looking or analysing them, when the reality is that the design of the built environment can change our emotions drastically.

Designers, developers, urban planners and policy makers in collaboration with sociologists, psychologists, health professionals and the wider community must carefully look at the way people experience their surroundings with all their senses.

We need to keep challenging the status quo, disturbing what is obviously an out of date, rigid and non-resilient industry by creating buildings and cities that are not just sustainable but also nourish the spirit of people, promote emotional attachment and cognitive restoration.

red brick building city high rise skyscraper snow road canada


14 Patterns of Biophilic Design, Terrapin Bright Green, 2014.

Mind the GAPS Framework, Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, 2016.

A Manifesto for Conscious Cities, Itai Palti and Prof. Moshe Bar, 2015.

Written by Paloma Hermoso, Senior Development Manager at Exeter City Living

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